Following path of tobacco to rural North Carolina Up in smoke: The Tobacco Farm Life Museum speaks to a way of life that is rapidly changing.

November 19, 1995|By Mike Shoup | Mike Shoup,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

KENLY, N.C. -- The trail through the tobacco heartland of America leads inevitably to this quiet little town in eastern North Carolina.

Half of the nation's annual harvest of cigarette tobacco, nearly 1 billion pounds, is grown within 50 miles of Kenly, and it is here that the state's tobacco farmers have built a museum to enshrine their values and culture.

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is hardly a Smithsonian-level institution. But it is a good starting point for anyone following what might be called the Tobacco Trail in North Carolina, because the museum speaks to a way of life that's rapidly changing and, at least some farmers say, is even threatened with extinction.

It's not just the diminishing base of smokers in America and the constant attacks of anti-smoking activists. Nor is it higher tobacco taxes or the very real threat that the federal government may soon declare nicotine a drug, thus further restricting its use. It's all those, combined with the increasing competition from foreign tobacco, grown much more cheaply and in some cases of a quality that may soon approach the crop here, which is still generally acknowledged to be the world's best.

On the present course, some agricultural economists predict, U.S. tobacco acreage may fall by as much as 40 percent in the next five years. It's a prospect potentially devastating to farmers, and to the general economy of the tobacco belt as well.

But for travelers curious about the growing, harvesting, processing and manufacturing of tobacco -- whatever their personal feelings about the cursed weed -- it also provides an added incentive to visit soon, before museums become the only place to experience this way of life.

Today, we'll start in Kenly and then head to nearby Wilson, the largest tobacco market in the United States (the largest in the world is in Zimbabwe), and from there go on to the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum in Durham and other museums and institutions in the Raleigh-Durham region.

And, just as the trail inevitably begins in the tobacco growing belt, it ends at the manufacturing plant, with a tour of the Whitaker Park plant of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem. In an increasingly health-conscious nation (and, some North Carolina farmers are saying, an increasingly politically correct one), this may be the only remaining public tour of a cigarette-making plant.

Memories are made of this

The Farm Life Museum provides an explanation of the often-used and, to an outsider, sometimes confusing terms "flue-cured" or "bright-leaf" that are applied to tobacco grown here and in a few adjoining states.

For decades, particularly before post-World War II mechanization, tobacco was indeed "flue-cured" in two-story barns. Today, it's generally cured with forced air, in metal-covered "bulk" barns heated by oil or gas. The effect is about the same, so the words "flue-cured" remain, as does use of the term "bright-leaf tobacco," which refers to the golden or orangy color of the cured leaves.

"Bright-leaf" and "flue-cured" tobacco are one and the same, in other words, and are used primarily for cigarettes, whereas burley tobacco is used in cigars, pipe tobacco, cigarette blends and other products. Burley is grown in western North Carolina, and particularly in Kentucky, but burley and other tobaccos are grown in as many as 25 states, including south-central Pennsylvania.

This and much more can be learned for a $2 entrance fee at the museum, which is located along U.S. 301, near Exit 107 of Interstate 95.

The Farm Life Museum covers the history of tobacco growing in America, from its export to England by the early 17th-century Jamestown Colonists to its evolution in the 20th century as a crop that "brought cash to the family -- money that was used to buy land, improve houses and send children to college."

Artifacts from family farm life -- hand tools, household goods, even cured tobacco leaf and antique tobacco tins once used to (( store the final product -- tell the story. We learn how tobacco was and is farmed and cured, and how manufacturing evolved from 2,000 hand-rolled cigarettes a day in the 19th century to the modern era, when one plant can turn out millions.

Just a few weeks ago, a traveler heading east of Kenly encountered Charles Wiggs, bundling the last of his tobacco crop in burlap for market, with the help of his two brothers and four seasonal migrant workers. "Health issues aside, if tobacco is a legal product -- and as far as we know it still is -- then the federal government should get off our backs and let us grow it and not regulate us out of business," said Mr. Wiggs emphatically.

"If you're going to say nicotine's a drug," he added, "well, so is caffeine. Then you'll have to regulate that, too. Where does it end?"

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